Kieran Tapsell. The Royal Commission – Damning with faint understatement.

Sep 24, 2015

The reports issued by the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse at times seem quietly understated.

The Commission seems to invite readers to draw their own conclusions – damning or otherwise – from the facts the Commission has found.

This is particularly true of its report into its Case Study No 16, on the Melbourne Response.

For two years Bishop Geoffrey Robinson and his team developed Towards Healing, a national protocol for dealing with child sex abuse within the Church, in consultation with the Australian bishops, one of whom was George Pell, an auxiliary bishop and later Archbishop of Melbourne.

Less than a month before the formal approval by Australia’s Catholic bishops, Pell announced his Melbourne Response, which applied only to his Archdiocese. According to Bishop Geoffrey Robinson’s evidence, Pell subsequently claimed that he was the “first” in Australia to introduce such a protocol.

The Commission relates the reason that Pell gave for not waiting a few weeks to sign up to Towards Healing: the Governor of Victoria, Sir Richard McGarvie and the Premier, Geoff Kennett, “expressed strong views that the Church should act quickly to address the issue.”

The implication behind this is that Premier Kennett was not prepared to wait a couple of weeks for the national protocol to be rolled out. The reader of the report is left to ask: really?

Pell accepted that by announcing his own protocol a few weeks before Towards Healing, the latter was no longer a “national response”.

The report says that a consequence of this was that “like complaints may not be treated in a like manner and consistency of outcome would not be achieved. Because Towards Healing did not cap the financial payment, it may have and has resulted in more generous payments to survivors than the Melbourne Response, which was initially capped at $50,000.”

The Commission doesn’t say that the cap was the motivation behind Pell’s actions, but if the Kennett excuse sounds implausible, the cap reason does not.

Despite denials that the purpose of the compensation aspect of the Melbourne Response was to discourage civil suits against the Church, the Commission found that many people would be dissuaded from going to court by the Archdiocese’s statement that any such court proceedings would be ‘strenuously defended’. In the Ellis case, Pell, who was then Archbishop of Sydney, spent some $750,000 on lawyers’ fees doing just that.

The morality of the Church relying on its privileged position as an unincorporated association to avoid liability towards victims of clergy sex abuse is not left up in the air. The report quotes a letter from Laurie Rolls of Catholic Church Insurances that a particular claim should be met because “the priest was acting in the course of the ‘business’ of the Archdiocese. We would then regard him as a person for whose conduct the Archdiocese was responsible.”

The Commission notes that such acceptance of legal responsibility may have been inconsistent with the Ellis case, but goes on to say that “there is no doubt that it reflects an appropriate moral approach and accords with the expectation many people have of the legal responsibility that the Catholic Church and other churches and institutions should accept.”

Bishop Bill Morris of Toowoomba had adopted this moral approach when he asked a retired High Court judge to advise him on the appropriate levels of compensation that should be paid for abuse in his diocese. Toowoomba’s average payout was $382,433. Melbourne’s was $32,000. Bishop Morris was sacked, ostensibly for other reasons, while Pell was called to the Vatican to look after its finances.

The Commission found that the Melbourne Archdiocese had net assets of $222 million, plus a fund for its various activities of $106 million, and that its current surplus was in the “millions”.  Readers of the report are left to draw their own conclusions: compensating the victims of sexual abuse by clergy was at best very low on the Melbourne Archdiocese’s priorities, and at worst it was an example of venal greed at the expense of victims.

In this modern rendition of the parable of the Good Samaritan the man in the ditch was not left there by robbers, but after being sexually assaulted by colleagues of the priests and bishops, they threw him a few shekels as they passed him by.

Some of the lawyers who helped set up and became part of Pell’s Melbourne Response came in for some more direct treatment. An eminent Melbourne lawyer, Peter O’Callaghan QC (Queen’s Counsel), was appointed by Pell to be the first “Independent Commissioner” under the Melbourne Response.

In its quiet way, the Royal Commission painstakingly crossed out “independent” from his title. O’Callaghan was supposed to make findings as to whether or not the abuse had occurred, and that was all. But he involved himself in the counselling and compensation aspects, and in trying to “flush out”, for the benefit of the Archdiocese’s solicitors, whether a couple of claimants intended to take common law proceedings.

The whole process of the Melbourne Response was covered in conflicts of interest and problems of keeping confidentiality.

Unlike Towards Healing that required reporting to the police, the Melbourne Response had no such requirement, but it would encourage the victim to report. This was in line with the Vatican’s interpretation of canon law. Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, told the Irish bishops in 1998: they were not to hinder the victim from going to the police, but bishops themselves were not to do the reporting.

O’Callaghan’s job was to encourage the victim to go to the police. The Royal Commission examined two cases, where O’Callaghan claimed that he was giving victims appropriate information as to whether they should report the matter to the police. The Commission’s conclusion was that he had discouraged them from doing so, and that “this advice was not appropriate”.

The Commission gave us a preview of future hearings. It stated that it was “troubled” by the fact that Archbishop Little of Melbourne had made two unsuccessful attempts, in 1990 and 1994 for the Vatican to dismiss Fr Michael Glennon who had been convicted and jailed for child sexual abuse offences, but a similar application by Archbishop Pell in 1998 was successful.

It pointed out that it took “eight years from the time of the Archdiocese’s first petition, and 20 years from his first conviction, for Father Glennon to be dismissed from the priesthood. We are concerned that the application of canon law by members of the relevant dicasteries of the Holy See operated to obfuscate the removal of (a) priest who had been convicted of child sexual abuse from the clerical state… The role of canon law will be reviewed further in Royal Commission hearings.”

Just prior to the publication of the report, Bishop Geoffrey Robinson had told the Commission “the major obstacle to a better response from the Church has been the Vatican.” It will be interesting to see how the Commission deals with those at the top of the ecclesiastical tree.

Kieran Tapsell is a retired solicitor and barrister with degrees in Theology and Law, and author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse.



Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!